Friday, July 6, 2012

Patti Smith and Neil Young

The line snaked endlessly through the basement bowels of the Javits Convention Center as the hordes of music lovers queued for one of the Book Expo America's main attractions: “A Conversation with Neil Young and Patti Smith.” But when I finally got in and nabbed a seat (with the souvenir badge at left), it was everything I could have hoped for. They were both so charming and funny—so real, so cool, and so forthcoming about their lives, their music, and their passions. My pen ran out of ink before they even strolled out, so I madly tried to capture their talk on my new phone in five-minute increments (someday I can figure out how to download and share it). At one point they talked old guitars, Neil agreeing with Patti that "music lives in them; people's souls are in them." That reminded me of a passage from her memoir Just Kids:
Toward the middle of July, I made my last payment on my first guitar. Held in layaway in a pawnshop on Eighth Avenue, it was a little Martin acoustic, a parlor model. It had a tiny bluebird decal on its top, and a strap made of multicolored braid. I bought a Bob Dylan songbook and learned a few simple chords. At first they didn't sound too bad, but the more I played, the worse it sounded. I didn't realize you had to tune a guitar. I took it over to Matthew, and he tuned it. Then it occurred to me that whenever it got out of tune, I could find a musician and ask them if they wanted to play it.
I had written “Fire of Unknown Origin” as a poem, but after I met Bobby, I turned it into my first song. I struggled to find some chords to accompany it on guitar, and sang it for Robert and Sandy. She was especially elated. The dress sweeping down the hallway was hers.
Death comes sweeping down the hallway in a lady's dress
Death comes riding up the highway in its Sunday best
Death comes I can't do nothing
Death goes there must be something that remains
A fire of unknown origin took my baby away
Decades later, Dylan asked her to tour with him. And she'll be touring with Neil as they perform music from their two new albums, Banga and Americana. As we were waiting for them to come out, both old and new Young songs were playing on the loudspeakers. Songs from the new album like “God Save the Queen” were of a piece with vintage material like “Down by the River.” How he makes something essentially simple sound so rich is one secret of Young's artistry. You can hear songs from the album on this edition of NPR's World Cafe.
  I'm very much looking forward to the new Jonathan Demme documentary Journeys: Neil Young.

And here's an excerpt from NPR's review of Banga:
Featuring Patti Smith's former New York punk-era colleague Tom Verlaine on solo guitar, "April Fool" is one of the prettiest songs on Smith's new album, Banga. Verlaine sends out long, thin, delicate tendrils of sound as Smith's voice suffuses the melody with full-throated urgency. Although Smith has said, with typical art-democratic directness, that "almost everybody in the world can sing," a few songs on Banga make you aware of what a good voice she has. Over the decades, Smith has recorded so many songs in which she speaks or declaims or howls her words that it's always something of a surprise, to me at least, when she sounds as polished she does in a piece of modified, modern doo-wop called "This Is the Girl."
The two musicians acknowledge the crowd's enthusiasm for their dialogue at BEA


  1. I've had the pleasure of seeing Neil live numerous times and he continues to amaze. Warts and all, he refuses to rest on his laurels and is willing to fail publicly. Patti's new album is stellar and her memoir was breathtaking... great stuff!

  2. Very interesting I'll have to check it out!

  3. Terry Gross also talked to him on Fresh Air about the songs on the album.

    1. Interesting you mention the Fresh Air interview...I was going to mention that! Neil Young is a really fascinating guy and props to him for "willing to fail publicly" as Mr Fink said. Also, I'm not finished but I love Patti Smith's memoir. Currently I'm reading Life by Keith Richards. I think I'm addicted to reading about musicians' lives!

    2. Patti was also on All Songs Considered, which you can download from NPR as a podcast or listen online. She talked about her influences and some of her favorite music, including some songs from Neil's album.
      Can you believe how they had to struggle? (She and Robert Mapplethorpe). Sharing 1 grilled cheese sandwich between them?